How Does Digestion Affect Exercise and Sports Performance?

There’s a myriad of ways that can derail your sports performance and exercise plans: injury, exhaustion, and dehydration, to name a few. But did you know that digestion plays an important role as well?

The Role of the Microbiome in Supporting Exercise

There’s a lot that happens in the gut that helps our bodies function properly. Your digestive system is home to thousands of strains of beneficial bacteria that help to break down foods that are resistant to normal digestion. This allows you to obtain more nutrients from your foods.

2017 study found that exercise, combined with a high-fiber and nutritious diet, can help increase “good” gut bacteria and promote diversity and harmony in microbes. Tiny bacteria, known as microbiota, help break down and absorb nutrients, and they also help build proteins and expel waste.

When there’s not enough of the right kind of bacteria, or if the wrong kind is introduced, or if it’s not getting the support from the body to do its job, the impact to your digestive system can be immediate. Common symptoms may include cramping, heartburn, irregularity, and more, prohibiting you from completing a race or workout.

What Can You Do to Improve Performance?

Endurance athletes pay very close attention to their nutrition as they train, as well as in the days leading up to their race. As Herbalife Nutrition-sponsored athlete Heather Jackson noted, “Nutrition is critical to not only winning, but actually finishing a race.”

But regardless of your fitness level, there are simple steps you can follow to avoid missing your next workout or competition. Here are a few of them:

Consume enough fiber.

Fiber is the structural portion of a plant, so it’s found in good-for-you foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Adults should be eating in the neighborhood of 30 grams of fiber a day, but the average intake among adults in the U.S. is only about a third of that. Our busy lifestyles contribute to the problem.

Stay hydrated.

To ensure optimal performance, you should drink water before and throughout your exercise session. For longer durations where you might need to replenish electrolytes, you can drink sports drinks that can help hydrate and fuel you during your workouts.

Get some good bacteria.

While the idea of consuming bacteria in your diet may not sound appealing, the probiotic bacteria found in yogurt and other fermented foods can promote digestive health. Aside from yogurt, you can pick up some of these “good” bacteria in other fermented soy products (miso, tempeh, kefir), as well as in pickled foods like cucumber pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

Keep a food log.

Documenting what you eat and when not only helps track the amount of food and calories consumed but can also help pinpoint any digestive issues that might have a negative impact on your exercise plan.

Take your time.

If you’re just starting out, a strenuous exercise plan might stress out your digestive system, joints, and muscles. Not to mention your risk of injury increases significantly. A lower intensity workout plan can be very beneficial and increase the chances you’ll stay committed to the exercise program.

Interestingly, when it comes to exercise, high-intensity exercise such as sprinting may actually spark more discomfort than “gliding” movements, such as cycling, rowing, swimming or skating. Here’s the takeaway: exercise is always good, but it needs to be the right kind at the right intensity.

Exercise and Digestion Go Hand in Hand

Exercise isn’t just for the muscles—it’s also good for your digestive tract. Exercise stimulates the muscles to contract, which can promote regularity. It’s also a great stress-reducer, which makes it particularly good for those whose digestive systems act up when they get stressed out.

And as we continue to learn about the vast universe within our bodies, keep moving and remember that good nutrition is essential to your fitness success.

Learn more about digestive health here.

Dana Ryan, PhD, M.A. – Director, Sport Performance and Education

Dana RyanPh.D., MBA, M.A. – Director, Sport Performance and Education

Dana Ryan completed her doctorate in physical activity, nutrition, and wellness at Arizona State University. Before joining Herbalife Nutrition, she taught exercise physiology and related courses at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA), and has conducted research at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on the impact of community-based nutrition and physical activity programs on heart disease risk.